Monday, 9 June 2014

Highs and lows

The few weeks since my previous post have raced by in a blur of birds, people and places. After a horrendous week involving several frustrating dips in the last week of May, I was almost, admittedly rather  melodramatically, ready to pack in this twitching lark for a quiet life of patching. Unfortunately I have been well and truly bitten by the bug and the adrenaline of seeing new rarities appears to be one of the most addictive drugs known to man. Therefore early on the 20th of May, with my logic well and truly beaten by my compulsive need for a rarity fix, I found myself boarding a train to Leamington Spa. Here I met Matt Bruce and after a quick detour to pick up James and Sam in Notts, we were steaming north towards Covenham Reservoir and a date with a Terek Sandpiper. Upon arrival I was feeling particularly twitchy and my fears were compounded as I was told the bid had just flown to the far end of the causeway. A brisk and incredibly nervous walk followed but thankfully upon our arrival we were put on to the bird by a couple of birders present. As I got my scope on the bird waves of relief washed over me as the Terek Sandpiper filled my vision and I was able to take in the stunning little wader in all its glory! A bird I've long since wanted to see I was amazed by just how compact and dumpy it was structurally. I continued to watch the bird for around 20 minutes as it fed along the waters edge on the emerging flies with a small mixed wader flock. In this time we were even treated to a few snippets of song and Sam Viles managed to capture the fantastic images below. A real treat and a reminder of the extreme highs that make twitching so worthwhile.

Terek Sandpiper (c) Sam Viles

Terek in flight (c) Sam Viles

During this time Scott arrived and almost simultaneously news broke of an Eastern Subalpine Warbler in the Canal Hedge at Spurn. As all of us needed this likely armchair tick, we headed off tearing up the coast and arriving at Spurn just before 2pm. After what felt like an eternity searching the scrub to the south of Canal Scrape, the bird was eventually picked up but instantly dropped down out of view on the far side of a dense hedge. We cautiously walked over and as we rounded the hedge I saw a small bird flit across into a bare shrub. I got my bins on it and instantly knew it was a Subalpine Warbler, but which one? In the 5 minutes we watched it at close range, opinions were split on the ID as the bird possessed a thick white moustachial strip but appeared far too buffy underneath for an albistrata. As time was pushing on we had to head south but thankfully the ID conundrum was solved by shots of the diagnostic tail pattern which proved the bird to be a 1st-summer male Western Subalpine Warbler race cantillans. A cracking tick for me made all the sweeter by gripping it back from Scott who had seen the Lleyn Penninsula bird a year or two previously.

A few days later and I found myself heading back towards Spurn with Scott for a weekend's stay at the Warren. The conditions were perfect with easterlies and rain forecast and a nice arrival of Red-backed Shrikes on the Friday afternoon raising hopes for some nice drift migrants. Saturday certainly didn't disappoint with highlights including a self-found female-type Common Rosefinch at the point, a smart female Red-backed Shrike in the bushes behind the Riverside and an elusive female Red-breasted Flycatcher in the garden off Beacon Lane. which eventually gave good views. A report of the Flamborough Bee-eater flock heading south over Tunstall the had us dashing to the Warren but after several hours with no sign we decided to head north and search for them. Despite checking most of the likely spots between Kilnsea and Tunstall we could not locate the birds. Consolation was provided however by this incredibly showy Wryneck in Withernsea Tesco's car park which gave stunning views as it fed on ants. An absolutely stonking bird, this cryptic species is one I never tire of seeing, especially when they show as well as this.

After a heavy night in the Crown and Anchor watching the Champion's League final, Scott and I decided to have a lie in on the Sunday morning as the weather was awful when the alarm went off at 5am. This proved near fatal when I was stirred from my sleep just after 7.30 by what could possibly have been a distant shout of "Bee-eater". Despite the chances of it being a wind-up to wake us up, I was taking any chances and grabbed my bins running up to Numpty's in just my shorts and a vest in a state of wild panic, half-expecting to see one of the locals holding a camera. I immediately realised this wasn't a joke however and was soon scrambling to try and see the birds as they headed rapidly  south. In my adrenaline fueled panic my brain managed to stay focused enough to pick up the 5 Bee-eaters as they powered over the narrows and off down the point. Although the views were crap the birds characteristic, strong undulating flight was obvious even at distance through bins and when they banked I got more of an impression of structure. Not ideal views but still a nice lifer and a great addition to the trip list! After we had calmed down slightly, Scott and I had breakfast and decided to vismig from Numpty's. However news of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in North Yorks and a Little Bittern 20 minutes from home eventually proved too tempting and we set off on a daring round trip twitch, the thoughts of what we might miss back at Spurn constantly in our minds. Thankfully the Broad-billed Sandpiper showed well, if distantly on arrival and we soon moved on towards Elton Reservoir and the Little Bittern. This was to prove slightly trickier as the bird was flushed prior to arrival but had apparently returned and vanished into one of the smallest bits of habitat I'd ever seen. As the minutes dragged on I was getting more and more nervous but the day was saved when young birder Harry Murphy picked up the Little Bittern creeping unobtrusively through marsh. A stonking adult male, we were treated to fantastic prolonged views as it successfully hunted Great Crested Newts along the edge of a small pool. A cracking bird to catch up with and much more satisfying than the distant flight views achieved by many at Ham Wall. A 3 tick day already in the bag, we headed back to spurn where miraculously the best birds we had missed were a couple of Curlew Sandpipers on the Humber. Result! Monday was unfortunately a dud, with most of our time spent waiting for a Black Stork which never materialised. Still a fantastic trip which reaffirmed the Spurn area as one of my favourite birding spots in Britain!

Tuesday the 27th saw me make a flying evening visit to Port Meadow before dinner to twitch a summer-plumage Grey Plover found by patch stalwart, Adam Hartley, in abysmal weather. The patch had been pretty dead for a couple of weeks prior to this but his persistence paid off in the form of a scarce patch bird and a nice patch tick for me! The rest of the week passed relatively bird free and I looked forward to my sister making a visit to Oxford to see me before I head away for the summer (more to follow). Making commitments in June is always a risk and my gamble was punished when a second summer Short-toed Eagle was found roosting in a tree in Dorset on Saturday evening. Despite kind lift offers from Scott Reid, I decided abandoning my sister in a strange city was a bit far and was forced to watch as hundreds of people saw the bird of 2014 so far without me. Although I don't regret my decision, it was heartbreaking to miss the best chance I'm ever likely to get at seeing this species in Britain, especially when so many of my contemporaries saw it. I can't keep on about the Needletail forever after all (NB: yes I definitely can!). I was still feeling slightly down the next day when the mega alert announced the presence of a singing Spectacled Warbler at Burnham Overy Staithe in Norfolk. I desperately rang round to try and sort a lift to no avail and a feeling of overwhelming despair had begun to consume me when Brucey kindly stepped in and offered me a lift. I met him at Leamington Spa around 4.30pm and we ploughed up there, reaching Burnham Overy just before 8pm. At this point the light was fading and doubts were starting to creep in as to whether we would see the bird. After a taxing 20 minute walk/jog to the bird's actual location, passing many smug NGB's on the way, I arrived to learn that the bird had not been seen in twenty minutes. A bout of swearing ensued and I began to lose hope I'd ever see the bird. Luckily persistence won out and after ten or so minutes of constant scanning I managed to relocate the Spectacled Warbler as it popped up in a small bush and proceeded to give great views as it fed amongst the suaeda. An absolutely cracking little bird to see, much more distinctive than I was expecting with a beautiful steel blue/grey head and a really buffy wash to the breast and underparts. A really nice bird and one that I didn't expect to catch up with in the UK for a long time, the Speccy partially made up for the pain of missing the Eagle.

The rest of the week was quiet bird-wise until the Saturday when Brucey offered to take me to Otmoor for some local birding with him and Emma-Louis Cole. This proved an enjoyable afternoon with absolutely mega views of a couple of Turtle Doves, a nice county tick and a great opportunity to practice my phone-scoping. Other good birds included year ticks in the form of Hobby and Garden Warbler as well as my first cucurra Lesser Whitethroat of the year. The next morning I was rudely awakened from my sleep by Dave Campbell who informed me that the STE was back, perched in a tree near Beaulieu Road station in the New Forest. BOLLOCKS! I eventually managed to arrange a lift with Mark Payne and Fred Fearne to get there early afternoon. Predictably the bird flew off as the weather warmed up and despite the best efforts of us and the assembled birders, there remains doubt as to whether it was ever seen again and it certainly wasn't seen while we were there. The New Forest was actually remarkably quiet with a couple of Hobbys and a singing male Redstart the only birds of note. Still it was a pleasant day out and it seems possible that the bird, being a non-breeding immature in suitable feeding habitat, might linger in the area for awhile. Unfortunately I head to Skomer for 3 months of research (twitching quarantine) on Sunday so the chances of it being found roosting in that time window appear to be rather low. The beauty of birding however its that you never know what might happen......

Phonescoped Turtle Dove, Otmoor RSPB